Monday, August 26, 2013

Two different parts of the country...many differences

We recently returned from visiting Jenny and her family in Northampton Massachusetts and - as I do every time we travel north to our daughter’s adopted hometown - I can’t help but notice how different Western Massachusetts is from Central Florida.  Far more than miles separate these two culturally, demographically, topographically and physically diverse parts of the country. 

Of the many physical differences between Central Florida and Western Massachusetts, one of the most obvious is the radically different styles of residential architecture.  Homes in Northampton are mainly wood-framed structures sided with painted clapboard or shingles intermingled with fieldstone or red brick buildings.  

Even in a downtown Northampton brick building, residents' make room for flowers 

The stucco-covered concrete block buildings that line the streets in most Florida developments are non-existent in Jenny’s quaint New England community.  Actually, planned developments, in general, are practically a non-entity as are the cookie-cutter type houses we Floridians have come to accept as a given.

Instead of sprawling one-story structures like most Floridian abodes, homes in Northampton tend to be multi-story structures.  While some have garages (often detached) many houses are without a covered parking space.  One thing they don’t lack, however, is a working fireplace.  Chimneys are omnipresent – houses might even have more than one - yet air conditioning, if present at all, seems like an annoying afterthought.  Freestanding units protrude precariously from double-hung windows like stuck-out tongues registering disgust at the very thought of hot weather.

Home’s ages differ too.  In Florida (which became a state in 1845), a house built in the 1950s is considered OLD while in Western Massachusetts (statehood: 1788), houses that have sheltered families for well over a century are commonplace.  Entire neighborhoods in Northampton consist of winding, tree-lined streets flanked by a stately assortment of just such highly functional wood-framed antiques.

Large, boxy homes, often without garages (but with chimneys) line most Pioneer Valley streets

My daughter’s house, built in the early 1900s, sits in such a neighborhood.  Its small lot is dotted with tall trees and colorful perennials.  Flower-filled yards are as much a fixture in the Pioneer Valley (the area along the Massachusetts border of the Connecticut River) as the old-time, wood-framed homes they adorn. 

On this most recent visit, the late summer blooms – or more specifically, the bees that constantly buzzed in and out among the late summer blooms – became the focus of my attention.  I couldn’t help but wonder why I saw so many more bees there than I usually see back home in Florida, a state named for its floral displays.  In a period when bee populations around the country have being inexplicably decimated by CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) why were the Western Massachusetts honey bees and bumblebees so active?

Bee on unidentified pink flower

I wondered if it could be because of all the flowers.  Everywhere I looked, I saw blossoming plants.  They filled up tiny front yards, backyards and the sides of houses.  They grew out of planters, raised beds and in rock gardens.  Bright pink, white, yellow and blue wildflowers flanked roadsides and spread across unplowed fields.  In Jenny’s yard alone, bees buzzed about her pink phlox flowers, slender gooseneck blooms and several other pollen-filled flowers I was unable to identify.

Bee on chive flower
Could the healthy bee population be a result of so many yards filled with flowering plants or was the explanation more complex? 

The Pioneer Valley is a youthful, dynamic region home to five colleges.  Farmer’s Markets and CSAs are plentiful, recycling is routine and a plethora of Subarus, Priuses and Toyota Matrixes boast bumper stickers pronouncing “Be Green,” “Coexist” and “Every Day is Earth Day.”

With so much visible evidence of an environmental consciousness, I wouldn’t be surprised if organic gardening was also widely practiced.  If so, a reduced usage of herbicides, pesticides and other potent chemicals might contribute to the health of bee populations.  Although it’s not definitive, research suggests that many common garden chemicals can prove fatal to bees. 

I don’t know for sure why I saw so many more bees in Western Massachusetts than I usually see around my own flower-filled, unsprayed yard but I accepted the fact with pleasure.  I took many pictures of both flowers and bumblebees and enjoyed the phenomenon along with the many other contrasts between my southern abode and this quaint New England community.

Bee on another unidentified pink flower

It’s good to go away and see other sights.  It’s interesting to make comparisons, note different styles of architecture, cultural diversities and topographical differences.  It’s fun to challenge the mind to explore new ideas and ponder the “I wonder why’s” but it’s even better to come back home to the old familiar.  We may not have as many bees in my own adopted hometown, yet it remains the place I want to be.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Fishing is for the birds

An osprey with freshly caught fish in its talons


When people see our lake for the first time they usually ask two questions: “Are there alligators in that lake?” and “Are there fish?”

The first question is easy.  I always answer, “Yes.  In Florida, there’s at least one alligator in just about any body of water.”

The second question is more difficult to tackle. 

Our lake does have fish but we don’t catch them.  However, if I say that, it elicits a completely baffled response.  The person asking is obviously an angler who’s looking at our lake - our pristine, secluded pond – like he’s stumbled upon Paradise Found.

So instead, I offer up an ambiguous, “Yup.  Sure are.” 

My answer is honest because there are fish in our lake.  There are enough bass, minnows and assorted other species to satisfy the needs of herons, ospreys, egrets and other water birds.   

Although it sounds like blasphemy to admit, in our lake fishing is taboo - at least by humans.  Fishing is for the birds and the occasional raccoon, bobcat, gator or hungry otter.  I love looking out the window as a great blue heron patiently stalks its prey but it would spoil my view to see a human doing the same.

I realize my attitude is hypocritical.  After all, I’m not opposed to eating fish.  I fill my shopping cart with packages of flash-frozen wild salmon and flounder.  I’m well aware that catching my own fish would be fresher, healthier and a more honest endeavor.  I don’t do it because I don’t want to kill fish any more than I want to kill the rabbits that hop through the tall grasses, the wild turkeys that strut by or the bobcat that occasionally appears.  I don’t want to hunt the animals that share my surroundings and the way I see it, fishing is just another form of hunting.  I don’t need to eat the fish in my lake and I have no desire to catch fish for sport.

On the occasions when I allow myself to be lured into discussions with anglers, the issue of ‘catch and release’ inevitably arises.  “Oh, I don’t kill them,” the fisherman proudly insists.  “I catch and release.” 

If this is supposed to be comforting and reassuring, it’s not. 

No one knows for sure if fish feel pain when hooks puncture their skin or if they suffer when forced into an alien atmosphere after being reeled in and yanked out of water.  A 2009 study by a Purdue University professor and his Norwegian graduate student concludes that they do feel pain but other studies disagree. 

However, I don’t need scientists to tell me what seems obvious to anyone who has even seen a fish flopping around in the bottom of a boat gasping for oxygen while an angler tries to remove a hook from its mouth.  Of course it hurts!

The question isn’t whether fish feel pain but what reason is there to fish?  If done strictly for food, fishing makes sense.  If done for sport, fun or to while away the hours… not so much. 

My feelings are personal and only concern the lake surrounded by our property.  I don’t have a problem with people fishing elsewhere.  I just don’t want it done here on property I consider a nature sanctuary. 

In discussing this with my husband, he offers a challenge:  “What happens when one of the grandkids wants to fish?  How are you going to deal with that?” 

Ralph, who’d gladly dine on fish from our lake if they would only jump into the frying pan pre-cleaned and filleted, doesn’t share my strong feelings on the topic.  He harbors no desire to do the actual catching but he’s not opposed to looking out at other people reeling in their supper. 

None of our kids or their spouses ever expressed an interest in angling but another generation is on the way.  I can see how someday the question, “Can we go fishing, Grandma?” might well come up.  If it does, I’ll probably say, “Fine.”  I’d try to be flexible and understanding. 

Until that time, as unpopular as my position might be with the hook and line crowd, our lake remains a no-fishing zone.  Sometimes you just have to go with what feels right even if your position elicits blank-eyed stares of bewilderment from eager anglers. 

The way I see it, if fish can swim against the tide, surely I can too. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

My neighbors are wasps

Although I’ve lived next to lakes with sandy beaches for most of my life, I had no idea sand wasps existed until this summer. 

I became aware of them one day while sitting on a chair near the water.  When I gazed down, I noticed numerous wasps buzzing around the beach.  As I looked more closely, I realized the wasps weren’t flying randomly.  They seemed focused on precise locations.  A single wasp would land on a specific sandy spot and madly begin digging its way underground.  After a furious effort, it would disappear completely only to reappear moments later, fly away and then return to begin the process again.

The more I watched, the more fascinated I became.

A black and white striped sand wasp prepares to excavate its sandy burrow

My fascination increased when I saw one wasp return to the site with a caterpillar in its clutches.  The wasp inserted the caterpillar (which was almost as large as the wasp itself) into the tunnel.  It then proceeded to spread sand over the entry hole until it was impossible for me to tell where the tunnel had been.

Immediately, I thought of the potter wasps that I had learned about in July.  Potter wasps are solitary wasps.  The female builds a marble-shaped nest attached to a stick, wall or other surface.  When the nest is complete, she lays a single egg inside the nest and then drags in numerous paralyzed but still alive caterpillars for her larva to feed upon as it develops.  Once she has laid an egg and inserted a sufficient number of caterpillars into the nest, the adult wasp seals up the hole and lets nature take its course.  If all goes well, the developing wasp will dine on the inert caterpillars until it is ready to drill its way out of its single-celled home to begin the cycle anew.

A potter wasp in the process of building a nest

Because of what I knew about potter wasps, I figured I was observing a similar cycle with a different species of solitary wasps that nested on sand.  Eager to know more, I left the beach behind to seek information online.

What I discovered is that the insect I’d been watching is indeed a solitary type of wasp called Bembix speciosis, better known as a sand wasp.  Although I observed a sand wasp carrying a caterpillar, it mainly catches flies, stuffing its dugout nest with dozens of houseflies, deer flies and other annoying pests. 

Although the female is capable of stinging people (the male isn’t), she rarely does.  Like potter wasps, sand wasps are beneficial insects.  Not only do the adult wasps capture caterpillars and flies to feed to their young, they themselves feed on nectar, which helps pollinate flowering plants. 

Bembix speciosis is just under an inch long with large eyes, transparent tan wings and a black-and-white banded body and bright yellow legs.  Its elongated mouth doubles as a digging tool, which comes in quite handy when excavating a burrow, an occupation that takes up a considerable part of a sand wasp’s life.

Sand wasps don’t linger long in one spot.  These industrious insects are constantly coming and going as they build one nest after another (often close together).  Each deeply tunneled home – a tunnel can be 10 to 20 inches long - contains a single egg.  When the female wasp is not busy enlarging her burrow, she’s out hunting for food to fill it.  After each visit to her underground lair, the wasp seals the hole tightly to deter predators from finding her undeveloped offspring and its stash of food.

Despite her valiant efforts, most wasp larvae never make it to maturity.  Grub-seeking armadillos eat some and I’m sure I’ve inadvertently destroyed quite a few developing sand wasps myself when I’ve weeded the beach or dug holes in the sand with my grandchildren.  It’s not easy being a sand wasp.

Armadillos disturb many sand wasp nests in their search for grubs

Most of us could care less about wasps.  We lump together all potentially stinging creatures in one category:  Bad Bug!  Armed with cans of insecticide, we kill indiscriminately without hesitation, remorse or a sense of wrongdoing. 

But not all bugs that look scary are bad. 

In fact, insects like the sand wasp and potter wasp are among the good guys working hard to make our lives better.  If you see a large black-and-white striped wasp zooming around the beach sand this summer, don’t freak out, run away or reach for the Raid.  Sit back instead and watch the show.  You are privy to a flying marvel of maternal instinct, determination and indefatigable effort.   

The only sting you’re likely to get from this wasp is the sting of regret for all the times you’ve overlooked observing one of nature’s small wonders.